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A Bit of Old, a Bit of New

California enters the first new fiscal year of the Schwarzenegger era at midnight tonight as it did under many past administrations, with no state budget in place. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had put a high priority on passing a budget on time, intending it as another signal that he had banished Sacramento’s politics as usual -- bitterness, partisan entrenchment, deadlock and political expediency. Somehow, though, the cloak of failure doesn’t fit him.

The causes of the delay are familiar rounds of haggling and deal-cutting with majority Democrats in the Legislature. But the Republican governor is not rallying his supporters against the Democrats for being obstructionists. Chances are, a budget will be in place in a few days and Schwarzenegger will hold an elaborate signing ceremony with lawmakers of both parties standing by while he declares that things are “fantastic!” Despite the naysayers who claim it’s still politics as usual, the people will cheer.

Schwarzenegger is certainly using some old Gray Davis tricks to get through his first budget year, making some cuts and papering over the rest of the shortfall with bonds, other forms of borrowing, accounting gimmicks and deals for short-term savings that will cost dearly in coming years.

So, is this the new era or the old?

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The answer is a little of both. No matter how popular or persuasive a governor is, he or she cannot wave an arm and do away with the state Constitution or political reality. Once the governor presents his budget, it becomes the property of the Legislature. The final product requires two-thirds approval from both houses, meaning that even if all 48 Democrats in the Assembly and all 25 in the Senate voted for the budget, at least six of the 48 Assembly Republicans and two of the 14 Senate Republicans must vote yes. Republicans who in the past probably would have clobbered Democrats for a budget like this one and refused to approve it can now only gulp and grin.

Schwarzenegger’s most obvious exercise of power this year was to cut separate side deals with public schools, higher education and local governments to save the state several billion dollars during the coming fiscal year. The trade-off is higher costs in following years, increasing potential shortfalls. But the governor had to submit his first budget to the Legislature two months after taking office. What he bought with the deals was time and trust.

Under the state Constitution, Schwarzenegger could reduce or eliminate any spending item in the final budget with his line-item veto power. By negotiating with Democrats beforehand, he reduced the likelihood of surprise vetoes, preserving bipartisan relationships.

Much of what turned California voters against politics and politicians was the kindergarten sandbox tone of partisan bickering and heels-dug-in refusal to compromise. Today’s debt restructuring and old-fashioned deal-making are wrapped in what looks and sounds like adult discussion. There’s still hope that the groundwork for larger reforms is tucked into those smiles and photo ops.

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